Studio Voltaire
May 2023

Olga Grotova was joined by renowned feminist art historian Griselda Pollock, in a discussion that centred on Grotova's practice-based research project, The Friendship Garden. Grotova and Pollock discussed the power of art, specifically film and painting, as mediums to examine historical and intergenerational trauma. ⁠ ⁠

Through the lens of Pollock's work on concentrationism, affect and the aesthetics of resistance, they discussed the need for art that disturbs and interrupts dominant narratives, brings to light forgotten and obscured histories and that shakes or shocks us into action. ⁠ ⁠

Watch here

Studio Voltaire, London

Olga Grotova’s solo exhibition comprises new work produced as part of the artist’s ongoing project, The Friendship Garden. This project explores the land cultivation practices of Soviet women and female resistance to the authoritarian state.

The Friendship Garden takes the history of the artist’s grandmothers’ garden in the Urals as a prompt to explore alternative economic systems based on friendship, cooperation, and care across diverse communities, diasporas and generations.

Through this marginalised female history, Grotova explores gardening as means of resistance to patriarchy and oppression and opens up public discussions about the consequences of Soviet and British colonialism, the body’s connection to the land and friendship as an alternative economic force. Whilst women and marginalised people still have to carve out spaces for themselves, gardens serve as a powerful tool to express oneself and thrive.

The project’s starting point is the history of ‘Friendship’, an allotment cooperative where Grotova’s great-grandmother, Klavdia, and her grandmother, Marina, had a plot for three decades from the 1960s, in the aftermath of their return from ALZHIR – an all-female gulag camp for ‘Wives of Traitors to the Motherland’.

In a little-known and under-documented episode in Soviet history, thousands of foreign nationals who had moved to Russia in the 1930s were rounded up and executed, a violent and tragic exercise in scapegoating that left grief and trauma in its wake. The wives and children of these 'Traitors to the Motherland' were taken to an all-female gulag in Kazakhstan, and Grotova's great-grandmother Klavdia and grandmother Marina were among those forcibly moved there.

Later on, after their return from the gulag, Klavdia and Marina, like many other women, made their own allotment, continuing the practice of cooperation and mutual help that had been their lifeline. The 'Friendship Garden' privileged the core human value of attachment and care. Their garden’s timeline ran parallel to the Cold War but existed outside official history, instead existing in sync with the lunar cycles, plants, and lives of the female gardeners. The garden became a site where the women’s trauma could be processed through engagement with the land and with each other.

The installation frames Grotova's film, To my daughter I will say (2023), within a layered painted space that includes imprints of Grotova’s body, drawings, archival materials and gestures, bringing soil and plants found on research journeys into contact with the work’s complex narrative.

Our Grandmothers’ Gardens
The Rencontres d’Arles


For the exhibition Our Grandmothers' Gardens, Olga Grotova tells the story of her ancestors and country using three media: a film, historical magazines, and two works on paper. The film recounts the artist’s return to the Ural Mountains with her mother. They go out to find a parcel of land that belonged to her great-grandmother in the Soviet era, then to her grandmother, ending up in collective ownership. The artist’s viewpoint on this space of true self-determination is a tribute to the agency of these women. In the archive, we see Soviet propaganda campaigns boasting of women farmers. Finally, completing the set, are two works on paper made by superimposing images and materials, notably that of earth taken from the gardens themselves.

Taous Dahmani, Curator

The Friendship Garden 
(Sound work)
Paweł Althamer's Garden ‘Silence’


Paweł Althamer's installation Silence
Photo: Dmitry Shumov

Mum, Kazakhstan, 8mm film,  2022
The Friendshio garden is a sound work included in the spatial installation Silence by Paweł Althamer.

The work is based on the poem about my grandmothers’ return to Urals after imprisonment in the Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland in the 1930s. 

To Althamer, each element of the garden—be it a fallen tree or a particular deciduous bush—is a hidden quote, while the composition as a whole is a unique environment where the restless city dweller of today can alter the regime of time, as if transported to a picturesque space in a past era, where the rhythm and pace of life were not by default accelerated to the limit.

The work can be listened to online via the Soundcloud  (in Russian)

Debris on a Luminous Plain
Centrala, Birmingham (Solo exhibition)

Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

2019- 2021

In present-day Russia there is an untold history of the hundreds of thousands of women who were executed or forcedly resettled to the Gulag, the system of forced labour camps across the Soviet Union. Many of them were wives and mothers of men pronounced the ‘Enemies of the People’ (Vragi Naroda): ethnic minorities, affluent peasants, academics, Germans, Jews and Poles that were thought a threat to the Soviet regime. The women were arrested at night, sentenced without trial and hauled to the country’s remotest regions. One of the biggest all-female penal facility was the camp for ‘Wives of the Traitors of the Motherland’ also known as ‘Algiers’ (А.Л.Ж.И.Р) where tens of thousands were detained, amongst them thousands of mothers with their small children.

In the recent decades the Russian state has done everything to obliterate the history of ‘Algiers’ and other forced-labour camps: they are not featured in history books and are not subjects of state-commissioned monuments and remembrance ceremonies. The female prisoners’ stories have been twisted and re-written to justify the ordeal, but mostly they have been silenced; instead they exist like worm tunnels that weave through the monolith of Russia’s history, filling it with voids and fractures.

Debris on a Luminous Plain is based on my grandmother’s memories of ‘Algiers’ and the Kazakh steppe where the camp was located. She arrived there in 1938 as a one-year old baby with her mother, my great grandmother, and they returned back to Russia twenty years later. The knowledge that rests in between those temporal indents is fractured and disjointed, akin to the slippages of the tongue that would incessantly fail to form a narrative.

Debris on A Luminous Plain
Centrala, 2019

Debris on A Luminous Plain, performance
Centrala, 2019

A few years ago I came across a 1970s herbarium on a Russian online noticeboard. Driven by an unclear instinct I asked my mother to buy it. Afterwards she reported that the seller was a middle-aged man who came in a car covered in patriotic stickers: ‘To Berlin!’ and ‘We’ll bend you over’. His wife was a schoolteacher, he said, she found the herbariums discarded in the school storage.It was an easy way to make a buck; his car was an old Zhigul.

I picked up the artefact next time I came to Russia: two massive boxes with hundreds of sheets of dried plants. The herbarium was a study material distributed widely in Soviet schools to educate the children about USSR’s vast territories: from the newly adjoined Asian republics to Siberia and Caucasus. Each plant had a name a naïve illustration next to it showing the scene from the place where it had been collected: a woman harvesting grapes in Crimea, a man walking the donkey in one of the East Asian countries.

One of the herbarium’s chapters was about the Kazakh steppe. It had some weeds whose names I heard from my grandmother: sagebrush, feather brush. The illustration showed a smiling man in a wide-brimmed straw hat with the yolk-yellow deserted landscape in the background.

The Debris paintings are made with the traces of the Kazakh steppe plants: a laborious mark-making process that I developed to replace my agency with that of the non-human witnesses. Each painting is an exercise in accumulating absences,  layering them one after another to contain a narrative within silences.